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And the Salt Sea Over All

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The islanders who live near the Great Temple call themselves the children of the sea. They mean by this that they obtain their daily meals and their trade with the mainlanders through fishing; so that they learn very young where and when the tides flow and ebb, and any child can tell you the signs of a storm, and how severe it is likely to be. Of course, they are mere humans, born to air and land, not like the merfolk, the true daughters of the sea, the sons of the waves, the children of the Sea-Queen, as the stories have it.

I must have known all this when I went to be trained at the Temple before my marriage, and yet still I was a trifle disappointed that the islanders and priestesses had the same dark skin and eyes as we mainlanders, with neither tails nor gills nor scales. Similarly, I was chagrined to find that the royal training provided by the priestesses consisted not of learning of the sea nor of perusing the romantic tales of legendary creatures that I had been allowed to read as a pampered princess, but rather lists of exports and instruction in performing diplomatic negotiations.

My favorite part of temple life therefore came after the lessons for the day were over, when the daily meditation occurred. This was not because I had any predilection towards introspection myself. But because my ultimate future did not lie with the temple, I was exempt from performing the meditation rituals. Instead I was given leave to wander the shore near the temple, if I was careful to return by the proper hour. Every day I looked forward to this, and spent it wading in the shallows, or climbing on the rocks in a nearby inlet, or simply daydreaming of mermaids while watching the waves and hearing the cry of the gulls. Every day brought a new aspect of the seashore I had not known before: the small birds skittering between the waves and the sand; the small armored sand-moles that appear when a hole is dug in wet sand before they frantically dig themselves back in.

None of the islanders were in the habit of frequenting the portion of seashore nearest to the temple, so I was surprised, the day I turned fifteen, to find the shape of a girl sitting on the rocks near an inlet I had visited many times before. As I got nearer, I saw that her hair and skin were pale and smooth, light -- almost silvery -- in a way I knew only from tales. I thought she might be a visitor to the Temple from some land unfathomably far away, but what was she doing here?

"Girl," said I, "who are you?"

And then she uncurled herself from the rock, and I saw her fish-half.

"A mermaid," I whispered. A mermaid! Only in a score of years, or more, was one sighted, and here was one not ten paces from me. All the tales I had heard about the sisterhood and fidelity of the mermaids rushed into my head. I do not know whether I whispered or thought it: Will you be my friend? Will you tell me all about the joys of life under the sea?

She turned to look at me. Her eyes were flat, more like a fish's eyes than like those of a human. Her mouth opened. Out of it came a song, but a song like nothing I had ever heard before. And as she sang, pictures formed in my mind.

*

The long strands of kelp rise up and up from the dark depths of the sea, swaying in eddies of water round their fronds, moving sinuously in ways no terrestrial tree ever did. Here a flash of silver is suddenly visible, as a fish darts past another to capture another in its jaws.

In the dimness at the root of the kelp the sea urchins feed, chewing away at the kelp holdfasts. And the mermaids swim down and down, from the sunlit-dappled shallows to the murky waters below, laughing as they pluck a sea urchin or a starfish from off a frond.

The mermaids do not form friendships as humans do. Indeed they are all sisters: daughters of the sea-queen, but they do not form the bonds of human sisters. They do not talk with each other about inconsequential things, neither do they share emotions. But sometimes two or three mermaids link hands, forming a circle around a large fish or dolphin as they sing together. The magic in the circle's song immobilizes the fish, which is then seized by the mermaids, to be crunched and torn with their sharp pearly teeth, until naught remains but bone, to be washed away by the cold salt sea.

*

Every day I went back to the rocky inlet. The mermaid was not always there, but I saw her figure on the rocks as often as not, or heard her song as I approached.

I still do not know what magic she used to speak to me, if one can call it speaking. When she sang, I understood it in pictures, in impressions. I think perhaps she also saw images from my speech, although I never knew for sure.

I was determined to be friends with her, as in the tales I had heard from childhood. I started bringing letters from my affianced prince to the inlet to read and to share with the mermaid. I had been betrothed to him since childhood, to seal our parents' alliance, and though we saw each other rarely -- his kingdom was several days' journey by ship and horseback -- we had sent regular letters and pictures, and I imagined myself to be half in love with him already.

I had told him of my Temple lessons, of my beach excursions, but I did not tell him of the mermaid. I do not know why I did not; perhaps only that I wanted her to be my own special secret. But I read his letters to the mermaid: the cares of his kingdom, the training he was undergoing, similar to mine -- though from tutors rather than priestesses -- and sometimes an extra note: I love to hear what you say of the sea; tell me more?

As I read his letters, the mermaid would be silent, watching me with her flat unfathomable eyes.

"What shall I tell him?" I asked her, and listened to her song. I went back to the temple and wrote him courtly phrases similarly styled to his -- and also, at the end, a few words about the brown-red octopus that prowls around the roots of the kelp. I left out the other part of the image that had come into my head during her song : the octopus biting and killing a crab with its venom, then cracking open the crab's shell with its sharp beak.

Then came the day when I said to her: "He is coming." I laughed aloud for joy. "He is coming! We are to be married at last! I am glad he is coming, and yet -- is he wise to sail here at the beginning of storm season?" I had been there long enough that I had started to understand the changeable weather of the islands. Had I been older, I might have realized that my prince knew nothing of this, that he might not have understood the oblique warnings no doubt given to him by the sailors.

And had I been wiser then, I might also have understood that I did ill in sharing so much with her, in not heeding what she showed me of herself, but I was much more innocent then. I thought of her as a sister of sorts, though she had, in her own way, been truthful with me from the very beginning, and up until the end.

It must have been not so many days later that I asked her, half in jest, of love among the mermaids, and saw the images I did not then take nearly seriously enough.

*

The open sea is a vast featureless void. From time to time a large fish will cruise past, or the emptiness will be broken by a lonely raft of seaweed, to which small fish and crustaceans cling.

The mermaids come here when certain urges come upon them. The mermaids do not bear young, save for the sea witch alone, the queen of the sea, and the mermaid who becomes her heir. But they still retain the instinct to mate. They do not, however, court as humans do.

They exchange neither conversations, nor gifts, nor impassioned declarations of intent. The mermaid, having found a suitable merman, sings her song, amplified by her magic through the salt water. The merman hears and is drawn by it to the open sea, where they meet and mate in the blank emptiness.

From time to time the fish and the mermaids become aware of a strange moving shadow above them. These are the boats of men. Dolphins and mermaids break the surface of the water and stare at the strange conveyances.

From time to time a mermaid will see a man striding the deck of the ship. This man is darker-skinned and darker-haired, more like the human girl upon the beach than the silvery-skinned merfolk. (Could it be that the man even looks slightly familiar? Mermaids do not understand representational art, but perhaps they can understand a mind's pictures based on the same art.) In bearing and expression, he resembles a particularly fine specimen of merman, and the mermaid dimly feels longings that might or might not have to do with the images she hears in the human girl's voice.

He does have two ugly fleshy protuberances instead of a scaly tail.

But he will serve well enough for what the mermaid has in mind.

*

Though I did not then fully understand what the mermaid showed me, I did retain a certain amount of restless unease, perhaps only because I was waiting for my prince's coming.

The day before he was to arrive was humid, the sky dark with low-hanging clouds. "Storm's coming," I said aloud, and one of the priestesses passing by looked at me curiously, for of course she knew it better than I.

That evening the storm broke. I heard, curled up and half asleep in my bed, the sound of the rain pouring down around us. And then I sat bolt upright, sleep forgotten, for in the wind I thought I heard a sound, a sound that might have been strange to any islander or priestess who heard it, but it was familiar to me. If the storm had been stronger near the shore, I might have stayed inside the temple, but I knew that I would be in no danger as long as I stayed well clear of the riptides. (At least, not from the sea; from the priestesses, if they noticed me gone, was another story.) I dressed quickly in warm waterproof clothes and hurried out to the shore.

As I ran towards the beach on which I habitually saw the mermaid, the sound became louder. I had been right: it was the mermaid. Her voice was unmistakable. But this song was unlike her others. My skin prickled with more than the coldness of the rain.

*

Salt the sea; salt the spell; salt the sea and salt the storm.
Storm to catch and bind the ship; salt to crack and warp the planks.
Waves to catch and take the men; salt to silence them again.
Mermaid bear him to the strand; salt to bind him to the sand.
Salt to catch and bind his tongue; song to hold and bond his will.
Salt from sea-witch of the deep, salt the price of sea-queen spell.

Salt and song and storm and sea; salt sea over all.

*

I ran down the beach, rain pelting me and turning the sand underfoot to slurry. And then I saw them, lying in the water between the sea and the land, the restless waves crashing around them: my prince and the mermaid. She was leaning over him, and in her face was a fierce gloating look. And her song -- it was not meant for me, and yet I felt a craving, a compulsion, and I took a step towards her without knowing what I was doing.

He coughed, spitting out seawater. His eyelids fluttered. He opened them to see her, and his whole body shuddered. As if he could not help himself -- perhaps he could not -- he raised a hand to cup her face, as her singing became louder and her smile more triumphant.

He closed his eyes. "No," he said, and turned his face away, and his hand fell.

She froze for an instant, as if she did not comprehend the word, and in that moment I took hold of the prince's arms. With strength lent me by panic -- I do not think I would ordinarily have been able to do this -- I dragged him up the beach out of her reach, out of the reach of the sea.

She looked at me. The foam swirled around her fish-half. Her mouth opened in a scream of rage and fear and pain, and that was the last thing I heard from her before she pushed off the sand and disappeared into the churning waves.

I cannot forget the last set of images that came to me with her scream.

I try, but I cannot.

*

The sea-witch, the Lady and Queen of the oceans, dwells in the abyss. In the sea-queen's domain there is no palace, no bright sunlit shoals, no colorful gardens. Here is no light, no freedom, no warmth, but only the crushing weight of the sea. The few who dare wander in the uttermost deep are gigantic slow monstrous shapes who live only to devour or to be devoured. There is neither joy nor sorrow here, only hunger.

Here the sea-queen has lived for time unimaginable; she, and her mother before her, and her mother's mothers. From the cracks of the abyss seep the roiling sorceries she brews in the frigid dark.

Here the mermaids are born, or perhaps created of the sea-queen's magic. It is only the sorcery interwoven throughout their bodies that affords them any beauty in this place where the pressing of the sea distorts all others into strange grotesque shapes. As soon as they are able, they leave this place behind, swimming up and up into the wider ocean.

Here the mermaids may descend again, but only one in perhaps a score's score of years will do so, and only when a great desire for the sea-queen's magic overcomes her fear.

For to use the magic of the sea-queen is to become heir to her domain: the cold, and the dark, and the weight; the salt sea inescapable, the weight of the salt sea everywhere.

*

My prince recovered from the wreck of his ship, the loss of all his shipmates, the salt water he had inevitably inhaled before (so the story went) I found him on the shore and roused the priestesses to carry him to the Temple. I stayed with him and nursed him for much of the day, but every day I went to the beach at the usual time. The mermaid was not there. I never saw her again.

We were married, my prince and I, and I came to live in his land-locked country, where the only water comes from small freshwater streams and lakes that have no waves nor tides. My lord husband remembers the breaking-up of his ship and the mermaid bearing him to land only as something out of a dream or a tale. But I remember her very well.

There is a story that I have heard in my prince's land, brought by traders and wanderers, of a mermaid who fell in love with a prince, who turned to foam when he did not return her love. I think this is only a tale. I do not believe that is what happened to my mermaid. I think that she went back to the abyss, as in her last song. I think that she is there still.

She was a daughter of the sea-queen, a creature of the sea, the sea that takes what it will and when it will, heeding naught but its own hungers. I think that she perhaps only understood the way of the sea, where love is known only as another kind of devouring. She thought love must be all-consuming, or a sacrifice of self without end, rather than a giving and a receiving. Indeed my lord the prince, knowing nothing of the sea, drew back from her bindings and her weavings, without knowing what he did.

And yet she succeeded, and never knew it. She has bound me fast with knots of kelp and crystals of salt. I hear her song without ceasing; I feel the cold caress of the waves in the midst of this land-locked kingdom.

I know that someday my lord husband will die in battle or of sickness; one day my children will be grown and need me no longer. Then, perhaps when I am very old, the sea shall call me back.

The sea: the sea and the rock on which I saw her first, the rock and the sand, the sand and the waves, the deep cool gardens of kelp, and deeper still, the cold and the darkness; and the salt sea over all.